Of Science and SETI

Carnival Barker Science Reporting Continues

Bluffton, Indiana is rather famous for its annual Street Fair, which is held in September. Every year it draws carnival games, rides, and exhibits from around the country to the small northeast Indiana town for a week of leisure, commerce, entertainment and downright decadent levels of food and beverage consumption.

In charge of drawing the passing pedestrians into those rides, booths, and trailers are carnival barkers who promise the most excitement, best bargains, best food, or simply some strange, new, unbelievable experience. Only, once you play the game, or see the “elephant pig hybrid,” or eat that ninth corndog, you realize that the thing itself can never live up to the barker’s hype.

Lamentably, in certain areas of research, the scientists and research assistants who talk to the press have come to resemble carnival barkers by promising new, amazing revelations from science that are touted as providing strong support for, if not definitive proof of, a philosophical materialist account of the origin and nature of life. The two areas where this most frequently appears are origin of life research (OOL) and the search for extraterrestrial life (SETI).

Origin of Life meets SETI

The origin of life on Earth has been an area of intense research interest for decades. Indeed, since the days of Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley, there has been a secular search for the Holy Grail of abiogenesis (life arising from nonlife) through self-organization. In all that time, the search has repeatedly been stymied by a vast array of what increasingly appear to be insoluble problems for a purely materialist account of the origin of life. Just to name a few, the oxygen/UV paradox, the related reducing-atmosphere problem, homochirality, the lipid divide, the origin of mitochondria and protein transportation are all providing evidence that undirected chemical and physical processes are insufficient to explain the rise of life from lifeless matter and energy.

None of these problems seem to enter into the awareness of those who write press releases or newspaper headlines about OOL research. Instead of “Researchers again falls short when facing insoluble OOL conundrums,” we read hyperbolic headlines like "Scientists create life in lab" or “Making Life from Scratch” or “Building Blocks of Life Found on Asteroid,” yet on closer examination, the claims never hold up.

The “cell created in a lab” turns out to have been reverse-engineered using the bleached-out, stripped remains of cells that were definitely not created in a lab, and the “building blocks of life in space” turn out to be merely carbon compounds that are not relevant to generating bio-active molecules. Or even precursors of bioactive molecules.

NASA & a Salon Stretch

A recently-reported discovery by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) at first glance provided an unexpected break in this a long series of hyperbolic headlines, at least, among major international news outlets. What did the NASA press release really say? Only that the JWST discerned spectral lines for CO2 emitted by the atmosphere of gas giant WASP-39b as it passed in front of its parent star some 700 light years from Earth.

Now, the feat is itself quite astonishing as a technical achievement. And to be fair, reporting on CNN, NPR and Fox, was, to my mind, unexpectedly level-headed. This turned out to be due to their shared origin for their coverage: They all quoted the NASA press release nearly verbatim. 

By contrast, Salon re-printed an article by Chris Impey and Daniel Apai, both professors (of Astronomy and Astronomy Planetary Sciences, respectively) at the University of Arizona, that originally appeared on The Conversation. The two are quite straightforward about the role they hope the JWST might play in detecting extraterrestrial life:

To detect life on a distant planet, astrobiologists will study starlight that has interacted with a planet's surface or atmosphere. If the atmosphere or surface was transformed by life, the light may carry a clue, called a "biosignature."

And this is indeed exactly what the JWST has proven capable of doing, having detected now one gas that is counted among those constituting a biosignature. Another gas in this class, water vapor, has also been detected in the atmosphere of an extra-solar planet, WASP-79b:

As it began science operations in July 2022, James Webb took a reading of the spectrum of the gas giant exoplanet WASP-96b. The spectrum showed the presence of water and clouds, but a planet as large and hot as WASP-96b is unlikely to host life.

How does the gaseous make-up of a planet’s atmosphere relate to the origin of life question? The authors are quite direct about this matter as well:

For the first half of its existence, Earth sported an atmosphere without oxygen, even though it hosted simple, single-celled life. Earth's biosignature was very faint during this early era. That changed abruptly 2.4 billion years ago when a new family of algae evolved. The algae used a process of photosynthesis that produces free oxygen – oxygen that isn't chemically bonded to any other element. From that time on, Earth's oxygen-filled atmosphere has left a strong and easily detectable biosignature on light that passes through it.

The search for life beyond Earth is, at its base, a search for a materialist account of the origin of life on Earth. It is as much a philosophical undertaking as a scientific one. Impey and Apai are honest about the limitations of the JWST’s ability to contribute to SETI, since it is unable to detect the presence of free oxygen, the clearest sign of life more advanced than bacteria.

Questions & Problems Remain

Given our state of knowledge about the origin of life, though, one has to question whether such a discovery would be confirmation at all. There is some question of whether conditions on early Earth could have permitted the origin of life without deliberate, intelligent intervention. And there are serious, apparently intractable problems for the hypothesis that life could arise spontaneously from nonlife.

Though the hype around the discovery of CO2 in the atmosphere of WASP-39b was more muted than much of the coverage of exoplanet discoveries over the last 20 years (just enter “Earth’s twin discovered” in the search engine of your choice to see what I mean), The Salon piece was still the kind of overselling typical of carnival barkers and not sober-minded science reporters. The thing itself does not live up to the hype. We may see the end of such reporting, someday. I hope. But we aren’t there yet.

is a professional translator, missionary, and writer living in Germany, where he works with several different ministries, and lives in a Christian intentional community. He has written academic articles on medieval literature and culture and has published essays in Salvo, First Things, and Boundless. He is a native of Indiana.

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